The Secretive Fight Against Bioterror

New lab at Fort Detrick, Md., researches the world's most deadly bacteria and viruses


Bioweapons experts say the nature of the research envisioned for NBACC demands an unusually high degree of transparency to reassure Americans and the rest of the world of the U.S. government's intentions.

"If we saw others doing this kind of research, we would view it as an infringement of the bioweapons treaty," said Milton Leitenberg, a senior research scholar and weapons expert at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. "You can't go around the world yelling about Iranian and North Korean programs -- about which we know very little -- when we've got all this going on."

Created without public fanfare a few months after the 2001 anthrax attacks, NBACC is intended to be the chief U.S. biological research institution engaged in something called "science-based threat assessment." It seeks to quantitatively answer one of the most difficult questions in biodefense: What's the worst that can happen?

To truly answer that question, there is little choice, current and former NBACC officials say: Researchers have to make real biological weapons.

"De facto, we are going to make biowarfare pathogens at NBACC in order to study them," said Penrose "Parney" Albright, former Homeland Security assistant secretary for science and technology.

Other government agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, study disease threats such as smallpox to discover cures. By contrast, NBACC (pronounced EN-back) attempts to get inside the head of a bioterrorist. It considers the wide array of potential weapons available. It looks for the holes in society's defenses where an attacker might achieve the maximum harm. It explores the risks posed by emerging technologies, such as new DNA synthesizing techniques that allow the creation of genetically altered or man-made viruses. And it tries in some cases to test the weapon or delivery device that terrorists might use.

Research at NBACC is already underway, in lab space that has been outsourced or borrowed from the Army's sprawling biodefense campus at Fort Detrick in Frederick. It was at this compound that the U.S. government researched and produced offensive biological weapons from the 1940s until President Richard M. Nixon halted research in 1969. The Army continues to conduct research on pathogens there.

In June, construction began on a $128 million, 160,000-square-foot facility inside the same heavily guarded compound. Space inside the eight-story, glass-and-brick structure will be divided between NBACC's two major divisions: a forensic testing center tasked with using modern sleuthing techniques to identify the possible culprits in future biological attacks; and the Biothreat Characterization Center, or BTCC, which seeks to predict what such attacks will look like.

It is the BTCC's wing that will host the airtight, ultra-secure containment labs where the most controversial research will be done. Homeland Security officials won't talk about specific projects planned or underway. But the 2004 computer slide show -- posted briefly on a Homeland Security Web site before its discovery by agency critics prompted an abrupt removal -- offers insight into NBACC's priorities.

The presentation by NBACC's then-deputy director, Lt. Col. George Korch, listed 16 research priorities for the new lab. Among them:

"Characterize classical, emerging and genetically engineered pathogens for their BTA [biological threat agent] potential.

"Assess the nature of nontraditional, novel and nonendemic induction of disease from potential BTA.

"Expand aerosol-challenge testing capacity for non-human primates.

"Apply Red Team operational scenarios and capabilities."

Courtney, the NBACC science director, acknowledged that his work would include simulating real biological threats -- but not just any threats.

"If I hear a noise on the back porch, will I turn on the light to decide whether there's something there, or go on my merry way?" Courtney asked. "But I'm only going to do [research] if I have credible information that shows it truly is a threat. It's not going to be dreamed up out of the mind of a novelist."